“This is a dirty conspiracy”, responded the infuriated Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the day after a personal communiqué between himself and his son, Bilal, started circulating social media. On 24 February 2014, wiretapped telephone conversations were posted on YouTube and other file sharing platforms via two online accounts—Bascalan [PrimeThief, which is a word play on PrimeMinister, Basbakan] and Haramzadeler [McHaram]. The tapes were of an exchange that allegedly took place on December 17 and 18 between father and son, who discussed ways of bailing out from corruption accusations by zeroing out one billion dollars stashed in their home. Following up on his response, the Prime Minister vowed to bring to justice those who are behind this “shameless montage.”
Many in Turkey anticipated more tapes to follow, and indeed they did. Since February 24, @BASCALAN and @HARAMZADELER333 have been uploading new tapes to social media platforms on a daily basis. With each tape, the Turkish public has heard more about corruption in Turkey, as well as the demands that the Prime Minister was making on the judiciary, business world, and media to control the narrative on this corruption case. But what if the tapes were montaged? And why would it even matter?
Seeking proof in science
When the tapes were leaked, the responses were mixed. For some, the existence of the tapes testified to the “truth” that the AKP was corrupt: the tapes were a dramatisation of a fact already known. For others, the tapes’ existence attested to another dirty scheme by the anti-AKP camp, which would go to any length to incriminate the AKP and its leader.
However, the public needed more than mere “belief” to support these opposing arguments. Hence, both the proponents and opponents of the Turkish Prime Minister appealed to scientific inquiry in their attempts to search for evidence. “Expert reasoning” and “reports” were collected from a range of actors, who introduced themselves as “scientists” and “experts” or claimed to hold “PhDs” in relevant fields such as sound engineering.
However, in providing “proof” of the authenticity of these tapes, scientific inquiry did more harm than good. Expert opinion was contradictory. The endeavour was to prove that one camp’s proposition (i.e. that the tapes are genuine) was superior to the other’s (i.e. that the tapes are fake). But the results confirmed both camps’ theses. In short, scientific inquiry produced not one truth, but two that opposed each other. This took us back to square one.
I wonder if the results surprised anyone. Maybe it did surprise the scientists out there, who would argue that what we witnessed was not science but its mockery at best. Here are two examples of such mockery: in response to the tapes, the Minister of Science, Industry and Technology Fikri Isik stated that he “believes the controversial tape was ‘montaged’," “When I saw these tapes, I could just feel they were a ‘montage’” was his expert opinion on the issue. The belief, according to the minister’s expert opinion, not only came prior to the proof (which would make it a hypothesis), but the proof, unsurprisingly, also served to conform to the belief.
On the other hand, the endeavour to prove the authenticity of the tapes brought about an assertion by a recording engineer, whose statement, like that of the Minister, made it to the news right away. He argued that he had “listened to the recording again and again. This recording is definitely authentic. As a recording engineer with a PhD, you can trust me.” Here, rather than the “proof” confirming a belief, it follows on from trust. The public was asked to trust the scientist’s expert opinion in order to buy into the proof.
These two statements, I argue, are representative of two main lines of interpreting the current crisis in Turkish society. Both the Minister and the PhD-wielding recording engineer represent two prevalent ways of approaching the graft probe. For those who want a new Turkey sans Erdogan, the conversation, whether there is supporting or contradicting “proof” of its authenticity, is, in itself the living proof of the Erdogan family’s involvement in the graft. The expert opinion of various sound technicians, which they call for, is at best a self-fulfilling prophecy. That they end up with a “fact” that confirms their point of view (that the voice recordings are genuine) helps only to maximise the pleasure they get.
For Erdogan’s supporters, who remain loyal to the AKP, the narrative was constructed in a different fashion. However, the underlying motive is the same. The tapes, like the Gezi protests, were yet another challenge put forth by the “dark forces” to bring the AKP down, therefore bringing Turkey’s “success” to a halt. Hence, they are fakes. The 25 February entry on Erdogan’s Facebook wall, about his speech to his AKP group in the National Assembly, was filled with supportive messages. One commenter shared a link to a montaged tape of the leader of the opposition (Republican People’s Party/CHP’s Kemal Kilicdaroglu), pointing out how easy it is to montage one’s voice. Another confirmed his faith in Erdogan, stating that the scheme would be disrupted in the ballot box on local elections of 30 March 2014.
Even if the tapes are real… or fake
In response to the tape scandal, Burhan Kuzu, a professor of Constitutional Law, who is also an AKP member, tweeted that “even if the tapes are real, no one would believe them.” This is a strong statement that says a lot about the political mess Turkey is in. What Kuzu is saying is that even if the Prime Minister is guilty of a crime which is not only forbidden under the Turkish Criminal Code but also under Islam, his electorate would continue to follow his lead. To explain why that is the case, I can only hazard an elementary answer: the AKP electorate does not have an alternative to a world sans Erdogan. They enjoy the idea of a Turkey under his helm, which feeds into their subservience to his might and policies.
The opposite argument, is equally bold yet true: even if the tapes were fake, no one would believe it. Even if Erdogan were exculpated, the anti-Erdogan camp would continue to believe that he is guilty of the crime. Erdogan’s previous track record in power may be what drives such dissent.
In addition, however, I would like to stop for a moment and ask whether those who oppose Erdogan today have any tool other than the tapes to bring him down. Without the tapes, and claims to their authenticity, the only tool left for resistance against the Prime Minister’s rule are the streets, which take limbs and lives.
Because no other alternative exists for making sense of this political jumble, what we believe today is what we want to believe. As the discussions over the tapes show, seeking scientific evidence to approve or debunk claims of authenticity only helps to prove what we already know. Scientific expertise provides us with answers that we like to hear which, paradoxically, makes science one of the means to instil further belief. In Turkey, it looks like politics makes biased fools of us all.